Justin Fenton: 'Disputes are pettier than in Baltimore'

In our week-long job-swap the Baltimore Sun crime correspondent joins Manchester police tackling gang violence in Moss Side

The headquarters of the Greater Manchester Police force's Xcalibre squad could pass for any Baltimore police district station. Their second-floor office in the center of the city's highest crime area, Moss Side, is wallpapered with dozens and dozens of young men identified as gang members, with names like "Tree Frog", "Baby Soldier", "Screwface" and "Dirt Star". Red and blue bandanas hanging over each group's section signal their loyalties. Two of the major gangs have even started affiliating themselves with the Bloods and Crips, American gangs with roots in California.

"Many of these gangs are family members – it's almost as if you're born into that family, you're under that umbrella [of a gang]," said Detective Sergeant Rob Cousen. "It's difficult for lads to get out of that."

But Baltimore this is not. While the area described as Manchester's underbelly has drawn terrifying headlines in recent years and was compared by the shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling to inner-city Baltimore, I drove around with officers for seven hours and saw nothing to support such a comparison. The brick housing estates were non-descript but seemed from the outside in good order, and there was no one hanging around. It rained intermittently, which could have been a factor, but the young men whose shocking crimes were explained to me by police were nowhere to be found. I didn't even see a uniformed police presence, except for a few officers on foot patrol in the downtown nightlife hub.

Maybe it was just a slow night. But there have been plenty of those on Moss Side recently. For the first time in memory, the area went the entire month of August without a shooting. That's largely due to the work of the Xcalibre team, which has been targeting its efforts on intelligence gathering and intervention into gang activity. Gang-related firearms "discharges" were down 81 per cent in the past year and overall discharges have dropped 43 per cent, something officials hope can help the city shed its nickname of "Gunchester".

Though there are less such incidents, the crimes that continue to occur are just as brutal and senseless as the ones that put it on the map years ago. Officers described to me their growing concern over "honey traps", in which a woman affiliated with one gang uses sex to bait a rival member. Later, on a projector, they showed me cellphone-camera footage of a gang member who had lost a gun being beaten mercilessly by fellow members, who accused him of being a snitch. At one point, one of his attackers delivers a crushing blow to the head of the member who lost the gun, sending him collapsing to the floor.

In contrast to American gangs, Manchester's are racially diverse. They don't deal in large quantities of heroin or cocaine, but mostly marijuana. And while there are guns on the street, most of them have been obtained through quite creative means, including re-formatted starter pistols and homemade weapons. In many ways, the gang members here seem more determined and their disputes more petty, though to say Baltimore's crime follows some sort of code would be misleading.

Jerome Braithwaite, 20, is among those who know that violence is still an ongoing problem on Moss Side. His younger brother, Louis, was killed last January outside a betting hall, shot in the chest and stomach in a drive-by shooting. Police tell me that the incident has elevated Jerome in the Fallowfield gang, with many wearing T-shirts memorializing Louis and urging retribution. The officers say Jerome, however, is conflicted.

"All this gun stuff, it's just rubbish, really. I want to get out of it," Jerome told me while standing outside his home. "Every time, say one of us got shot, then someone else go over there and shoot them, then they come back over and shoot them. It's just one big circle that keeps going round."

He wants to leave the area, but he said that would leave his family vulnerable. "I could leave, but then something happens to my family, and I have to come back and do some dumb shit. There's no point."

That's the kind of change in attitude that's encouraging for police.

"As much as we get these young lads arrested for doing certain things, there's an element where we try to intervene at an early stage to steer them off this path," said Police Constable Duncan McNulty. "Only time will tell how successful that's going to be."

Justin Fenton is crime reporter at The Baltimore Sun. Email him at justin.fenton@baltsun.com